Although not designated as an official diagnostic entity, problematic Internet use (or “Internet addiction”, IA) has received increasing attention in professional literature, both within psychology and in other fields. Given the Internet’s popularity and growing recognition of its misuse, it seems legitimate to question whether IA is being given similar attention in relevant academic courses. To address this question, the author surveyed current college-level introductory and abnormal psychology textbooks for references to the IA phenomenon. Of the 44 texts examined, only three specific references to IA (or similar terminology) were found. Recommendations are made regarding the coverage of this contemporary concern in updated text editions.
Keywords: Internet; Addiction; Impulse control; Diagnosis
Practically since its inception, the Internet has been touted as both a source of unprecedented information accessibility and a potential interruption to traditional means of human relating. During approximately the past decade, the latter concern has been acknowledged with increasing frequency; as Internet use has grown in popularity, so has the documentation of instances of misuse. Recent studies reveal that excessive, if not addictive, Internet usage patterns are present among a range of ages and settings, from adolescents using the computer at home (Kaltiala-Heino, Lintonen, & Rimpela, 2004), to college students on campus (Nalwa & Anand, 2003), to various workplace situations ([Griffiths, 2003] and [Young and Case, 2004]). While the study and the general acceptance of the idea of problematic Internet use becomes ever more popular among professionals, it remains to be seen whether the mounting information concerning this condition is finding its way into contemporary psychology curricula.
Both the relative infancy of the phenomenon of “Internet addiction” (or IA), as it has been called, and the fact that it remains unrecognized as an official diagnostic entity contribute to the questionable status of the problem. There is a growing body of literature, however, that reflects recent efforts to “legitimize” IA. From a diagnostic perspective, for example, both an obsessive ([Pratarelli et al., 1999] and [Treuer et al., 2001]) and a compulsive (Greenfield, 1999) aspect of IA have been noted, suggesting a similarity with anxiety-related symptoms. Perhaps the most consistent hypothesis in the emerging literature is the comparison between IA and the impulse control disorders (Shapira et al., 2003), viewing the condition as an extreme on the continuum between normal impulsivity and pathology (LaRose, Lin, & Eastin, 2003). While it previously has been argued that the manifestations of IA are most similar to those of pathological gambling ([Beard and Wolf, 2001] and [Young, 1998]), some have suggested more recently that the condition actually represents a new subtype of this diagnostic category (Treuer et al., 2001). Various efforts also have begun to develop means of assessing IA ([Caplan, 2002], [Davis et al., 2002] and [Pratarelli and Browne, 2002]), though differences in construct conceptualization exist and psychometric data are not yet definitive. Despite its tentative position on the roster of disorders, treatment options began to address IA specifically as early as 1997 (Young, 1997).
Although specific prevalence estimates are difficult to determine and vary widely, both anecdotal and research evidence suggests that problematic use of the Internet affects a significant number of people. According to the most recent Census information, more than 40% of households in the US have at least one computer, with approximately 94 million people reporting daily use of the Internet (US Census Bureau, 2001). Coupling these data with findings from recent studies that show between 4.6% and 8.1% of frequent or daily Internet users meet (varying) criteria for pathological use ([Kaltiala-Heino et al., 2004] and [Morahan-Martin and Schumacher, 2000]), it may be estimated that 4.4 to 7.6 million Americans have problematic or “addictive” patterns of Internet use. These numbers far exceed the estimated prevalence rates for other impulse control disorders – the category of disorders with which IA most often has been compared ([LaRose et al., 2003] and [Shapira et al., 2003]). Pathological gambling, for example, is estimated to affect only 1–3% of the population (American Psychiatric Association, 2000), and other impulse control disorders have even lower prevalence rates. IA, as a potential disorder unto itself, would easily be the most common in its diagnostic category.
With the problem of IA being as widespread as it appears to be, a question that warrants consideration is whether – or to what degree – this phenomenon is finding its way into the classroom. Is the information available being disseminated adequately to psychology students? The present study set out to determine what information about IA is available in common psychology course materials.
2. Materials and method
The present study employed current editions of both introductory and abnormal psychology collegiate texts by US publishers. For the former, a compendium (Koenig & Griggs, 2002) of introductory textbooks was consulted, and all those listed were requested from the respective publishing houses. Of 35 texts requested, 32 were obtained. For the latter, requests were made of the same major publishers for abnormal psychology texts; twelve were obtained for review. (While no actual compendium of abnormal psychology texts was found, the increased degree of specialization results in fewer actual titles being available than is the case for introductory psychology texts.)
Within each text, the author searched the topical index for terms reasoned to be associated with IA, then investigated the corresponding pages when such entries were found. These terms included: addiction, classical conditioning, compulsion/compulsive, computer, “cyber-,” impulse (control), Internet, obsession/obsessive, online, pathological, “web,” and world-wide web/WWW. In addition, references to seminal research or presentations on the topic of Internet addiction were sought in the author index section of each text.
Of the 32 introductory psychology texts reviewed, only two made specific mention of the idea of addiction in connection with the Internet. One of these (Weiten) described IA as an overindulgent strategy for coping with stress and cited several studies dealing with IA as a specific problem. The second (Kalat) cited a study of risk factors for addiction among adolescents, including behaviors such as gambling, playing video games, and using the Internet. However, the Internet itself was not specifically mentioned in Kalat’s text coverage of addictive behaviors.
Among the 12 abnormal psychology texts reviewed, two mentioned the possibility of IA. Barlow and Durand’s text made brief reference to excessive computer use as a potential impulse control disorder. Nevid, Rathus, and Greene’s text also listed symptoms associated with overuse of the Internet and compared the similarity of criteria to pathological gambling; early studies by Young and by Griffiths on the topic of Internet misuse were cited as well. A third text (Hansell and Damour) simply listed “on-line sexual dependence” as an alternative term for, or variation of, the controversial condition of sexual addiction. Because IA was not mentioned as a potential diagnostic entity outside the context of the sexual disorder category, however, the Hansell and Damour text is not considered as qualifying for having included IA itself.
In approximately its first decade of widespread public use, the Internet has had a dramatic impact on psychology. Kimberly Young, perhaps the most notable pioneer in the area of IA, announced the opening of the “first research center and consultation firm on Internet addiction” in 1995, and it has now been ten years since the “first virtual clinic for cyber-disorders” began to offer treatment for this behavioral concern (Young, 1997). It is somewhat surprising, then, that in a field specializing in the variations of human behavior, very few who communicate developing trends to students seem to be recognizing in print the extent of the problems introduced by the Internet. Less than ten percent of newly published texts for college-level general and abnormal psychology courses make reference to the emerging epidemic of problematic Internet use.
Perhaps it goes without saying that one of the recommendations from the present findings is that textbook authors give more consistent coverage to IA as a social (if not a pathological) consideration. The impact of IA on both personal habits and interpersonal relationships is significant, perhaps more so than any other specifically identified non-substance related behavioral concern. Even without the official designation as a diagnosable disorder, IA has gone from an almost whimsical topic for “pop” psychology to a behavior pattern recognized as maladaptive, deviant, and/or subjectively distressful – three practical criteria commonly used in determining the abnormality of a given behavior. If, in fact, research can reliably demonstrate that the behavior meets these criteria, then a stronger case can be made that IA be included in the next revision of the DSM. A recommendation has been made recently for further “systematic research” into IA (Huisman, van den Eijnden, & Garretsen, 2003), in order both to steer away from methodological inconsistencies in research to date, and to more precisely define the disorder and its related information (i.e., prevalence rates, differential diagnoses, etc.), as typically addressed in DSM. Regardless of the particular category (e.g., impulse control) of disorders, certainly the inclusion of IA in the official diagnostic manuals will solidify its place as a “legitimate” diagnosis. For better or worse, however, this process is not a swift one, so that several more years are likely to pass until IA begins to be reported in textbook updates as a diagnosis unto itself.
While current texts largely do not include IA among topics addressed, it remains unknown whether instructors of psychology courses are addressing the topic at all. As an extension of the present investigation, further research may address whether the subject of IA is being presented in psychology or other relevant coursework (e.g., human resources management). Additionally, given the relative absence of text resources, it would be of interest to determine the source(s) of information specific to IA that is/are being used in those courses that do include it. As the Internet becomes increasingly woven into our daily lives, the degree of accuracy and thoroughness with which IA is addressed in the present will significantly influence the scientific study and treatment of its unhealthy effects in the future.
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Austin Peay State University, Psychology Department, Clarksville, TN 37044, United States
Computers in Human Behavior
Volume 24, Issue 2, March 2008, Pages 468-474
Part Special Issue: Cognition and Exploratory Learning in Digital Age